'Geography Of Genius' Explores How Surroundings Influence Ideas Author Eric Weiner identifies Renaissance Florence, Classical Athens and Silicon Valley as "genius clusters." And he explains how the right amount of friction and competition can help geniuses thrive.

'Geography Of Genius' Explores How Surroundings Influence Ideas

'Geography Of Genius' Explores How Surroundings Influence Ideas

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This painting of Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart shows him at the keyboard at the age of 9. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This painting of Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart shows him at the keyboard at the age of 9.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Eric Weiner sat down to write his new book he had to tackle a big question first: How do you define genius?

"That's not as easy as it sounds," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "I have a slightly unusual definition ... that a genius is someone we all agree on is a genius. It's a social verdict."

Weiner traveled all over the world — to Greece, Italy, Scotland and Silicon Valley — to investigate how genius takes root and grows. His book The Geography of Genius is an exploration of how great thinkers are affected by the places and times in which they live.

Interview Highlights

On whether a genius is born or made

Neither. Genius is grown, I believe. And I think we really are hung up on those first two theories. And we have really become to believe that. We really believe that if you look at, say, a Mozart who shows his prodigious talent at a young age, clearly there must be something genetic. It must be all genetic. And I really don't think that's true. Increasingly the evidence shows that genetics makes up a relatively small part of the genius puzzle. Geniuses are made, yes. Hard work matters. I don't deny that some sweat is involved but, it doesn't explain why you see genius clusters. Why would you see places like Renaissance Florence or Classical Athens or Silicon Valley today having such a concentration of geniuses? Are they all extra hard workers? I don't think that explains it. I think there's something in the soil.

The Geography of Genius
A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley
By Eric Weiner

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The Geography of Genius
Eric Weiner

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On the role competition plays

I think it's important with the proviso that it has to be healthy competition. If you look at a place like Renaissance Florence, there was fierce competition. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci despised one another. They really couldn't stand one another. But that brought out the best in both of them. And it turns out that the modern social science sort of backs up what I found on the ground. For instance, one study found that we tend to cooperate better with whom we once competed. And you see that time and again. Competitors turned into teammates.

On the "sweet spot of friction"

Freud was an outsider, he was a Jew, he was an immigrant and there was real tension in Freud's Vienna. His ideas were considered "fairy tales." And he had to really push against the system. But that's almost always the case. In these genius clusters there's friction. The genius fits, but it's not a perfect fit. It's an imperfect fit. And that sweet spot of friction, the right amount of friction is, I believe, what produces genius. ...

Someone who is fully invested in the status quo is not going to be a genius. I think that's fair to say, because they're not going to rock the boat. They're almost always an outsider. But I want to say they're not fully outsiders. They're what I call insider-outsiders. Freud is a good example. He was not fully accepted. But he was accepted enough that people listened to his ideas, or we wouldn't know the name Sigmund Freud today.

On whether Steve Jobs was a genius

While I was researching this book, my sort of cocktail party question was to go into a room and say, "So, was Steve Jobs a genius?" And in my experience, in this very unscientific survey, it was almost always split right down the middle, 50/50. Some people would say, "Oh, yes, absolutely he was a genius." And they would usually whip out their iPhone 6s or whatever and say, "Look at this thing, it's amazing. It's changed the world." And other people would say, "No, he wasn't a genius. He didn't really invent anything. He stole ideas from others. And he really doesn't belong on the same pedestal with Aristotle and Einstein and Freud.

On how genius is like fashion

I think if you go by what I call the "fashionista theory" of genius ... this idea that genius is a consensus, almost like fashion is a consensus — there's no good fashion or bad fashion, there's just what's fashionable ... you have to say that Steve Jobs is a genius because a lot of us, perhaps a majority, think that he was a genius. You know, we get the geniuses that we want and that we deserve. And this is what we care about; we care about technology.

On how geniuses are shaped by the time and culture in which they are born

Think about it: why are there no classical composers the likes of the Beethoven and Mozart out there today? There are very good ones, but we don't think that there's a Beethoven or a Mozart. It's not that the talent pool is dried up or there's been some weird genetic fluke that's diminished the talent pool. It's because if you're a young, ambitious person, you're more likely to head to Silicon Valley than to Vienna to study classical music. ...

During Mozart's time, in Vienna, 18th century, he had an extremely receptive audience, he had a demanding audience, and his audience was almost a co-genius with him. We tend to think that the genius produces this magnificence. And we, the audience, just passively receive it. I don't think it works that way. Mozart was acutely aware of his audience and the demands that they had. And the audience appreciated his music, demanded better music from him — if more of us were like that today, vis-à-vis classical music, I think we would have more Mozarts.